Laurence Coy, Justin Stewart Cotta and Sam O’Sullivan in The Removalists (Pic: Zak Kaczmarek)

Tamarama Rock Surfers’ production of David Williamson’s heyday play, The Removalists, came as a shock. I was incredulous to learn that a company touting itself as “committed to the development of new Australian writing” was to stage a work from 1971, iconic as it may be.

But perhaps the clue lies in the second part of TRS’ mission statement, which relates its commitment to “contemporary performance practice”, for this production couldn’t be earthier, grittier or more in-your-face in pursuing Williamson’s key themes, built around violence, authority, power, corruption, moral bankruptcy, hypocrisy and male chauvinist piggery.

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Word has it that director (and TRS artistic director) Leland Kean knuckled down with Williamson to reanimate his up-close-and-personal study of Australian society in the 1970s. The result is something I’d argue is at least as harrowing as earlier productions. Much of the punch hinges on the teeth-grinding realisation that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We may now be more sophisticated (or at least flatter ourselves as such) that in the ’70s, but does refraining from Coolabah and fat snags on the barbie really, truly make us so? We may’ve graduated to MasterChef-dom, but are we yet masters of our own destiny?

It turns out a re-run of The Removalists, apart from being a timely cash-in on the appetite for Underbelly, is a timely opportunity to promote another good, hard look at ourselves and, the fact remains, there are few, if any better than Williamson to enable this. In the flesh, I sighed personal relief: I’ve been a trenchant (if reluctantly so) critic of numerous of David’s recent forays into theatre, so it’s good to be able to point, directly, to work of his that’s not only admirable, but valuable. And not just theatrically. This is Williamson at his very best, as social critic and provocateur. He isn’t postulating answers to big questions here; a temptation to which he’s succumbed and which has run him into trouble over recent years, not so much by way of the validity or otherwise of the answers, but the patronising didacticism and stating of the bellying obvious which has accompanied them. In over words, David has been boring. This play, by contrast, isn’t one of the finest Australian plays but, for my money, one of the best plays ever written. Full stop.

I know. Big call. But I look up to it for its call-a-spade-a-shovel, jab in the ribs of our lucky country complacency, which still pertains. (I mean, hello, what comes after the mining boom and Ford’s withdrawal from the country?) It’s as penetrating, bare-laying an exposition of this nation as, say, Death Of A Salesman is of the elusiveness, for most of the American dream. Unlike Miller though, Williamson brings a particular, razor-edged, dirt-dry, blackly humorous sensibility to the piece, playing comedy against tragedy like a voodoo doll-maker. This not knowing when to laugh, wince or cry is what makes the for so unsettling, effective, compelling and powerful.

Kean has harnessed all of this energy, by way of both cast and crew. You can almost taste the rapport between him and the writer. It’s so good, there’s an argument for Kean stagings of other classic Williamsons. Nuggety Laurence Coy is Sergeant Dan Simmons, a hardbitten, old school (of hard knocks) cop, whose carved out a comfortable niche for himself at a two-man police station, providing back-up to the main station in a shady (and I don’t mean treelined) Melbourne suburb. He’s about to lambaste academy-fresh (Constable Neville) Ross from every possible angle; it fills in time, between the crossword and midday movie. Even with Ross, Simmons crosses boundaries that, in principle and on paper at least, wouldn’t be countenanced now, even in the force, as he unapologetically pries into Ross’ background. He pushes the young recruit to finally admit his father isn’t a carpenter, as Ross initially indicates, but a coffin-maker. This mischievous dramatic foreshadowing is darkly delicious.

Coy is cast with exactness (he has the look and cultivates the disposition so well he could be a copper) and this precision is seen right across the cast. As the uncertain Ross, Sam O’Sullivan has naivety written all over him. But there’s also a pervasive sense of uncomfortable containment; a judicious detail of character that comes into its own, explosively, a little later. Caroline Brazier, as the calculating, mercenary and worldly proto-feminist. (One can only speculate on whether Williamson is showing something of his own chauvinism in the way this character is drawn, or whether he’s deliberately written her as a reactionary portrait of the ilk that pervaded the media of the ’70s.) Brazier fits the bill with statuesque intensity, thanks to her particular brand of brazen schtick. Just as Ross counterpoints Simmons, Sophie Hensser’s Fiona Carter is the nervous, bullied foil to her older sister.

Williamson has plenty to say about authority and where it was vested in this era. Ross and Mrs Carter defer to their elders in a way that no longer pertains. That they’re older is enough; that they’ve lived their lives foolishly is of no consequence. “Experience” counts more than expertise or training. Knowing the ropes. The university of life was still the revered institution; academia regarded with suspicion. Perhaps this was something of an expression of Williamson’s own frustration and internal dilemma: one which moved him from mechanical engineering to writing.

The lecherous Simmonds, seeing an opportunity to get a leg over, proceeds to detail Mrs Carter’s assault, by her husband, Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta). He has her remove clothing as part of his inspection. Hensser projects humiliation such that we feel it, too. Kean micro-manages the dynamics here superbly. Mrs Mason seems to look on with a sense of vicarious, sadistic pleasure: she’s used to manipulating her sister and doesn’t seem to mind seeing Simmonds do similar. There’s something of a kindred, malignant spirit between them. Meanwhile, Ross feels empathy for Mrs Carter, but is too paralysed to protest; symptomatic of the camaraderie, enforced by bastardry, that was (and maybe still is) police culture.

Cotta, as the seething, drunken, footy-lovin’ pub crawler, Kenny, exudes menace. The threat to his young wife is palpable and always present. Yet our contempt for him, unbelievably, transmutes to sympathy during events that ensue. Finally, Sam Atwell is almost anachronistically comical as the removalist, come to collect Mrs Carter’s furniture on the sly. We come to know, only too well, he’s got ‘ten-thousand dollars worth of machinery ticking over outside’.

Like his vehicle, Kean’s production vehicle is finely-tuned, well-oiled, reliable and performs accordingly. Kean and Williamson haven’t only given this play a new lease of life. They appear to have given it an even better life that its previous ones.

The Removalists isn’t for the squeamish, in any sense. It’s violent, bloody and deeply disturbing. Just like our past, present and, probably, future.

The details: The Removalists plays the Bondi Pavilion Theatre until June 15. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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